On Town Meeting day tomorrow, several communities across New Hampshire will vote on whether to offer full-day kindergarten in their local school districts.
It will be the first time towns vote on the issue since lawmakers in Concord approved a program that provides state money for full-day kindergarten.
Last year lawmakers in New Hampshire legalized the electronic gambling game keno in order to pay for full day kindergarten.
The law’s passage was a big deal. It means that for the first time ever, school districts that offer full day kindergarten will get extra help from the state.
But it’s still up to each town to decide whether they want it. Right now about 20 percent of school districts in New Hampshire don’t offer full-day kindergarten.
I wanted to know if the new state money is changing the debate in those communities. If the so-called keno-garten law will actually mean that more kids attend full-day kindergarten.
So I picked up the phone and started dialing.
After some nice hold music from the Londonderry School District phone system, I reached Superintendent Scott Laliberte. He told me in Londonderry, full-day kindergarten isn’t even on the ballot this year – mostly for one simple reason:
“Space, first and foremost.”
Space. That’s the thing about full-day kindergarten, you have to have somewhere to put the kids for the whole day. Right now in Londonderry half of kindergartners go in the morning, the other half in the afternoon.
A lot of the districts that have moved to full-day programs in New Hampshire have been able to do so because their overall enrollment is declining. Not so in Londonderry, where the elementary school has seen a jump in the number of students over the last five years.
Laliberte says making room for all those kids would take a major investment in a new building.
“For me to go out and add on eight classrooms and hire eight new teachers – we’d need a lunchroom, a gymnasium, those kinds of these things on the school.”
He says they’ve estimated it would cost Londonderry taxpayers about $6 million.
Laliberte says he appreciates that the state is offering greater support for kindergarten. But for his community it just isn’t nearly enough to make the leap.
So, in Londonderry at least, the new keno money isn’t moving the needle on full-day kindergarten.
Map: Which NH towns already have full-day kindergarten?*
*School districts that have reported that at least one or more school has full day kindergarten in school year 2017-2018. Source: New Hampshire Department of Education
But what about a town that is voting on full-day kindergarten this year?
I went back to the phone and reached Steve Adler, principal of Main Street Elementary School in Exeter. Voters in that town will be weighing in on full-day kindergarten this week, and I asked him if that had anything to do with the new keno law.
“No. This decision had already been implemented prior to that. Certainly having the additional funding will be a win for us in terms of being able to support the program, but it was something that we had already felt strongly was really important for providing a quality education program for kids.”
Adler explained that full-day kindergarten in Exeter has been a long time coming.
Just like in Londonderry, the main obstacle was space. But two years ago, voters in Exeter approved a $5.4 million expansion to the elementary school, specifically so they could fit a full-day program inside.
The vote this March is really just the finishing touch – a relatively small increase in the school budget to hire the kindergarten teachers.
So Exeter seems to have made up its mind about kindergarten long before keno came on the scene.
I still wanted to find a town where the debate is ongoing, where keno might have a chance to tip the scales.
“My name is Robert Willette and I’m on the school board.”
Robert Willette is on the school board in Milford where residents will vote on a $580,000 proposal to offer full-day kindergarten for an estimated 126 kids.
Unlike the other towns, Milford has the space for it.
But Willette and his fellow board members are split on whether it’s a good idea.
Willette is against it. He says it’s not worth the money and he doesn’t think it’s the right thing for kids.
As for whether the new keno law factored in for him?
“To me, keno is not a decision maker. You know, whether we’re going to have it. What I’m really looking at is: what are we doing to the children? We’re putting five year olds in school for all day. And I believe they lose a lot of home life.”
To be clear, many around New Hampshire are thrilled that the state is now supporting full day kindergarten, particularly in towns that are already offering it – where they stand to get extra state dollars without changing a thing.
But in towns like Londonderry, Exeter, and Milford the new keno law just does not seem to be a major factor.
So, while the debate at the State House about kindergarten might seem like it’s wrapped up, for local communities around the state it will carry on, town meeting day by town meeting day.